British writer Michael Frayn is best known to American audiences as a playwright (Copenhagen, Noises Off), but he has written nine novels, including the Booker Prize finalist Headlong. Frayn's latest work of fiction is a small gem. A puzzle of a tale, Spies is about the distorted perceptions of childhood and the lasting reverberations they can cause.
The story unfolds from the 60-year-old reflections of Stephen Wheatley. When the scent of privet sparks a shadowy boyhood memory, Stephen returns to the suburban London street where he lived during the Second World War. There he reassembles the extraordinary events of one wartime summer, and an episode set in motion when his friend Keith Hayward made the dangerous, if thrilling claim: "My mother is a German spy."Stephen, who worships the mean-spirited Keith with the misguided reverence of a boy with little self-confidence, readily agrees to help his friend spy on the mother. The boys collect circumstantial evidence that suggests that Mrs. Hayward is up to something illicit. She quite often disappears for short periods, sometimes heading off with her shopping basket when the shops are closed. She seems to make an inordinate number of trips to the corner mailbox to post letters. When the boys follow her to an old railway tunnel, they discover someone hiding there, and presume it is German soldier on the run, or perhaps Mrs. Hayward's lover, or both.
Events make a quick about-face when Keith's mother realizes the boys are watching her. She approaches Stephen for help, and his desire to please muddles his resolve. Yet, even as he goes along with her requests, he doesn't fully grasp what is actually going on.
Is Mrs. Hayward a spy? Or are these just the fanciful imaginings of two boys swept up in intrigue?A master of the literary sleight of hand, Frayn tricks the reader into looking past the clearly laid out clues, just as Stephen overlooks what he inherently knows to be true. Yet Spies is far more than a simple tale of suspense. At its core, this compelling novel is about moral choices, the insidious pressures of an endemic class system and the ageless truth that no one can ever know what goes on behind closed doors. Robert Weibezahl lives and writes in Southern California.